Sure, you know what a meme is. It’s a picture with words, usually humorous, sometimes acerbic. You see dozens of them each day if you’re on social media. You probably share really funny ones with friends. And, as you’ve seen, there are hundreds of cat memes floating around the Internet.
But did you know that the word meme has strayed from its intended meaning?
Meme is not an old word. It is a word coined by Richard Dawkins in 1975 in his landmark book on biology, The Selfish Gene. It is a foreshortening of the Greek word mimēma ‘that which is imitated.’ It was intended to signify ideas that spread through a population in the manner of a gene, though faster.
Think of ideas that have swept through populations: philosophical or religious beliefs, the idea of a renaissance, the concept of an age of reason, to highlight a few. On the societal side, think of political phrases like “lock her up” and “#metoo” that have spread far and wide.
In an interview with Newsbeat, Dawkins admitted that “I’m not going to use the term internet meme to refer to a picture with writing on it.” For Dawkins, memes are “ideas that spread from brain to brain — a bit like genes, they are replicated many times.”
And so it is that while gaining a popular new word for pictures with captions (now its primary meaning in dictionaries), we’ve mostly lost an intellectually useful word to explain how ideas spread.
One thing linguists always tell us: language is in a continual state of change. Words change meaning, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. It’s the way language works. We may rue the change in the meaning of meme but it’s now a done deal.
As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. often wrote, “And so it goes.”
Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT specialist.
Words are … the most powerful drug used by mankind ― Rudyard Kipling
Words are the core stuff of writing―its quirks, quarks, roots, and branches. To form sentences and paragraphs, we use words. To express ideas, thoughts, plots, characters, dialogue, or scenes, we use carefully crafted combinations of words. The richer our vocabulary, the more precise and elegant we can be, not to impress the reader, but to seek le mot juste, the perfect word or words to describe or express something.
As a self-appointed dictionary evangelist, I believe all writers should love and use dictionaries. They’re the gateway into our language’s word horde, and English has the largest word horde of any language as measured by the number of entries in a dictionary — over a million words and counting.
Dictionaries provide not only the correct spelling of a word (including variant spellings), but also the definitions of words and the nuances of distinction between a word and a word with a similar, but not exact, meaning. Today’s online dictionaries even come with an audible pronunciation guide, to enable you to pronounce the word correctly in speech.
Selecting a Desktop English Dictionary
If you don’t already have a preference in dictionaries, and would like a print dictionary to keep on your desk, any of the so-called college desk dictionaries will provide you with an excellent companion and guide. Top Choices for American English include:
These dictionaries not only provide spelling, pronunciation, and syllabification, they define words, and give a bit of the word’s history, or etymology. These are among the most handy dictionaries available.
Canadian writers might also want to supplement one of the above with a paperback copy of theOxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English to check on Canadian spelling preferences for Canadian publications, such as colour instead of color and other words with -our spelling, and doubled consonants in words such as counselling.
Some of these dictionaries are also available in ebook format or as an app for phone or tablet. My favorite dictionary app for American English is provided by the august Merriam-Webster company, publisher of the definitive Third International as well as smaller dictionaries. On my iPad, I use the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus app almost daily and consider it the best dictionary app I’ve used. It can be obtained from the app store for your iOS or Android device.
If you simply want to quickly check the spelling of a word, Google (or your search engine of choice) is your friend. A quick check on Google will usually zero in on the spelling you want, even if you don’t spell it totally correctly.
Beyond Google, there are free online dictionaries that might suit your needs as well as a desk dictionary. Here are some that you might want to bookmark:
This site is a terrific aid to writers writing contemporary fiction and who want to include some of the latest in colloquial and slang terms and expressions. It’s kept very up to date on the latest words, some of which are at least semi-vulgar. You know. The way people actually talk. These recent words can add spice or variety to your character’s dialogue. E.g., Cape: “When someone is protecting, covering for or being a ‘hero’ for another person — ‘Lisa always gotta cape for Jay when he gets caught leaving early’.”
This is the most authoritative dictionary of the English language. It is famous for its etymologies and its historical citations that give examples, with dates, of how a word has been used in written English, from earliest recorded history of the language. The creation of the dictionary is the stuff of legend. Here’s a primer on the subject.
Bonus for fiction readers:Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams. A delightful novel about a young girl who grows up to womanhood working in the Scriptorium where the Oxford English Dictionary was created.
The downside of the online OED is that it requires a hefty annual subscription. However, some public library systems and colleges subscribe for the benefit of patrons and you may be able to access the dictionary for free through your library.
Simply one of the best. The website offers both dictionary and thesaurus listings from its carefully curated database. It seems on a par with the desk version of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate. Note that it does display ads when using it for free.
The Cambridge dictionaries are another of the fine set of professionally created dictionaries available online. You can toggle it to either US or UK English, making it especially handy for Canadian writers. It too contains ads.
Wiktionary is a popular site for looking up words. It has been created in the same manner as Wikipedia, by volunteers. It presents a less attractive interface than the previous dictionaries but it offers, according to its opening page, over a million words in English. It may be one of the best places to find the definition of technical words and terms. It provides some etymologies as well and it’s totally free, with no ads.
Here’s a site to bookmark by word lovers who are interested in the history of the words we speak and write. As it says on its opening page: “This is a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English. Etymologies are not definitions; they’re explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago.” Sheer fun and delight.
Word of the Day
An excellent way of increasing your awareness of words and their subtleties is to subscribe to the “Word of the Day” offerings from several of the dictionary companies. Each day in your email inbox you will find a word that is examined and explained, including its history of how it evolved into today’s meaning.
The sites that offer this list it on their front web page. I must admit I have a favorite:Merriam-Webster Word of the Day. It even has a companion podcast that is available from Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify Podcasts. Merrriam-Webster also offers a more general podcast calledWord Matters.It describes itself this way: “Word Matters is a show for readers, writers, and anyone who ever loved their English class. Join Merriam-Webster editors as they challenge supposed grammar rules, reveal the surprising origins behind words, tackle common questions, and generally geek out about the beautiful nightmare that is language.”
What could be more fun than geeking out on words? Well, okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but as a writer our stock of words and our intimate knowledge of them is one of our best assets.
Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT professional. He has a B.A. and M.A. in English with a specialty in the history of the English language.